DGS NBA Midseason Awards Part I
With the NBA All-Star break approaching, it is time to look forward to the awards race and see where we stand. Over the next few days, DGS will be previewing the award nominees and breaking down the awards races. Today, the first part begins with the Coach and Rookie of the year.
Coach of the Year:
Similar to the Rookie of the Year race, the Coach of the Year race has also tightened considerably as Boston has faltered. The award has been Brad Stevens to lose but their struggles combined with surges from some other teams have opened the award to a couple of other candidates.
3 – Erik Spolestra has gone from an overrated coach riding LeBron James’ coattails to one of the most respected coaches in the league. It is amazing how much the perception of him has changed. Spolestra drew a lot of fan’s ire by coaching the Miami super team but has shown his coaching bonafides as he has guided this Miami roster to a potential playoff berth with less talent than many lottery teams. He designs some beautiful actions, always has his players playing hard and is one of the most innovative coaches in the league.
Spolestra is reminiscent of Coach Gregg Popovich in the way he scraps ideas when they do not work, whether or not they are part of the coaching zeitgeist. Meanwhile, he is one of the first coaches to try new ideas, which was evidenced in the way he managed and coached the stars of the Heat when it was James, Dwyane Wade, and Chris Bosh. That same ingenuity shows in his ability to resuscitate the careers of Wayne Ellington, Hassan Whiteside, and James Johnson. Goran Dragic just got his first all-star nod and he owes Spolestra a big thank you. Meanwhile, Miami has been noticeably absent of draft busts with their training and development staff. Spolestra will fall short this year due to Miami’s inability to compete with the big boys of the East but has deservedly become part of the best coaches in the NBA conversation.
2 – Gregg Popovich will be on this list until he retires. Popovich could coach a rec league team to the NBA playoffs. This year, he has masterfully integrated new pieces while dealing with a litany of injuries to potential MVP candidates and the driving force of their offense. For his next trick, he has kept the Spurs afloat despite LaMarcus Aldridge’s recent absence. The talent in the Western Conference may simply be too overwhelming this season but that certainly will not stop Popovich. Kyle Anderson, Bryn Forbes, and Davis Bertans are all legitimate rotation players for the Spurs. All three coaches on this list would compete but Popovich would likely win the award for most players getting massively overpaid after playing for them. Of the three players mentioned, one will probably get paid just a bit too much by someone else once they leave the friendly confines of Pop’s magical aura. Here is hoping that Pop can give us a few more seasons and grumpy interviews.
1 – Brad Stevens is no longer lapping the field and probably is beginning to hear footsteps as the Celtics slid down to number two in the East this week. The Celts have lost three in a row and look discombobulated. They scored fewer than 100 points in four of their past six games and none of those defenses were particularly threatening. Meanwhile, they gave up over 120 points in consecutive games for the first time all season. Amazingly, they had not given up even 110 in consecutive games before that. That highlights a defense that has sorely missed Marcus Smart. Greg Monroe is also a flammable defensive player, which is not helping.
Still, Stevens has led the Celtics back to the top of the Eastern Conference without Gordon Hayward and with one of the youngest teams in the league. Despite their recent struggles, the Celtics are still the most efficient defense in the league and second to the Spurs in points allowed per game. If the Celtics keep slipping, then Stevens might fall down these ranks but for now, all hail to the President of Celtics Nation.
There are a number of deserving coaches outside of these top three. The most obvious candidate and the one that could end up winning the award outright is Toronto’s Coach Dwane Casey. Casey is undoubtedly a deserving candidate. He has remodeled the offense without changing personnel, which is as laudable as it is difficult. Meanwhile, the Raptors have overtaken the Celtics for the top seed in the East. Steve Kerr is another obvious candidate although it might not matter who coaches them, evidently. Nate McMillan, Brett Brown, Stan Van Gundy, Mike D’Antoni, and Mike Malone are all other deserving candidates.
Rookie of the Year:
Similar to the Coaching race, the Rookie of the Year race figures to come down to the wire after seeming like a slam dunk to start the season. The rookie class has emerged as an incredibly solid one with shocking depth. 11 rookies are averaging at least 10 points a game. 17 are playing at least 20 minutes a game for their teams as we approach the all-star break. Those numbers should only increase as more teams hand the reigns to their young players.
5 – Kyle Kuzma likely would have won the rookie of the year last season. Unfortunately, this year the competition is much stiffer and he squeaks into our list at number five. Kuzma is undoubtedly the most surprising name on this list given that he went so late in the first round. His success has centered on his scoring ability. Kuzma is a smooth scorer who has shown nifty moves and an ability to score from anywhere on the floor. He shoots under three free throws a game and could stand to improve a bit there. Otherwise, he is a complete offensive player already. He gets knocked down on this list for his mediocre defense and inability to impact winning on a slightly disappointing Lakers squad. Even if he only improves marginally, he seems likely to be a solid NBA player for years to come at the worst and a perennial all-star if he can further refine his game.
4 – When the Jimmy Butler trade was first announced, there was tremendous criticism for what seemed like a middling return. Most of that noise has dissipated. Part of that is due to the strong play of Kris Dunn and Zach LaVine but the primary reason is that Lauri Markkanen, the player chosen with Minnesota’s first-round pick, has shown superstar potential. Markkanen might have the highest ceiling of any rookie. He is already an elite level shooter. His current three-point percentage of 35 percent underplays a number of factors. He is the only elite shooter on the team, although Denzel Valentine’s development and the return of LaVine from injury have partially changed that. Markkanen has attempted over six threes a game and trails only Donovan Mitchell in both makes and attempts. That is ridiculous for a seven-footer.
In spite of his size, his rebounding numbers at Arizona left some concerns whether he could make a difference on the boards for an NBA team. He has put those concerns to bed by averaging nearly eight boards a game and should only improve in that regard as he gets stronger. Lastly, his defense passes the eye-test. He has shown that he is significantly more athletic than many realized. He has shown an ability to corral opposing perimeter players on switches in the pick and roll. Meanwhile, that athleticism has also been on display with some huge dunks. The beleaguered Bulls front office deserves credit for getting Markkanen in the middle of the lottery.
3 – As great as Markkanen has been, Jayson Tatum has been even better for a top contender in the Eastern Conference. If there was a 2017 redraft, Tatum is probably going number one. He is shooting 47.5 percent from the floor and over 42 percent from beyond the arc. He is also shooting over 82 percent from the line, which bodes extremely well for his ability to maintain high shooting percentages throughout his career.
As good a scorer as he has been, despite what seems like a rather meager 13 points a game, it is his ability to influence the game in so many ways that put him this high. Tatum averages over five rebounds a game and nearly a steal and a block a game. He is undoubtedly the most well-rounded rookie in the class. To wit, he can defend two to four without issue and that versatility has been a huge part of Boston’s defensive success. The only reason that Tatum is this low has been his poor performance since 2018 began. His numbers and performance have been down across the board as he hit the rookie wall. That said, Celtics fans need not worry as Tatum has already shown that he should be a future NBA star.
2 – Donovan Mitchell and Ben Simmons have flip-flopped as my first and second picks a few times. Mitchell would be a deserving winner but I give the edge to Simmons so far but that should not take anything away from Mitchell who would be Tatum’s toughest competition for the number one pick in a redraft if done today.
Mitchell has been outstanding for the Jazz. He is the leading scorer and could propel them into the playoffs. There is a relatively short list of rookies who have led their teams in scoring and brought them to the playoffs. Last week, Jason and I discussed this topic and Dwyane Wade was one of the only contemporary rookies to have led his team to the playoffs but even he did not do it as their leading scorer. Mitchell’s accomplishment and his ability to make an impact on both ends of the floor highlight his candidacy for the award this season.
The knock on Mitchell is that he has not been overly efficient in his role as bucket-getter and that he also does not impact the game in as many ways as Simmons does. Mitchell is primarily a scorer and averages fewer than four assists and four rebounds a game while playing more minutes than the players below him on this list. He has the look of an NBA superstar and should become a better distributor as his game develops, but for now, he is still number two.
1 – Ben Simmons no longer has the stranglehold he once did on this award with Mitchell’s emergence but his ability to impact the game in so many ways is impossible to ignore. He is a very good defensive player given that he guards threes and fours and can switch any pick and roll. The obvious weak point in his game has been shooting but Simmons and the Sixers coaching staff have smartly adjusted their game plan to mitigate against teams who sag off of him. When teams give him a runway, Simmons clears for takeoff and often ends possessions with a posterization of a defender. He is one of the tougher players in the league to stop with a head of steam so it gives defenses a choice of two suboptimal outcomes.
While his production dipped a little bit in January, Simmons has been remarkably consistent and is averaging over seven assists and nearly eight rebounds a game. He stuffs the stat sheet in a way few rookies ever have and is a jump shot away from being in the LeBron class. Even without it, Simmons has showcased his ability on both ends of the floor and is a deserving winner of the rookie of the year.
We would be remiss not to mention players like Bogdan Bogdanovic, Dennis Smith Jr., DeAaron Fox, Mike James, and Josh Jackon who have all struggled to get noticed while playing on Western Conference cellar-dwellers. Meanwhile, Lonzo Ball and Milos Teodosic had their campaigns impacted by untimely injuries. Finally, John Collins, Bam Adebayo, and Jarrett Allen are showing that there could be a few stud big men that come out of this draft class as well.